The Delaware Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the dismissal of a “take-home” asbestos case, ruling that the estate of a worker’s spouse who regularly washed her husband’s asbestos-contaminated clothing had a viable claim against two manufacturers that supplied the dangerous products to his employer.
The unanimous ruling from the state’s five justices overruled a strand of Delaware case law that shielded employers from liability to workers’ spouses, and in turn expanded exposure to liability for companies that make products used in industrial processes.
In a 57-page opinion, Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. said it was “neither fair nor efficient” to immunize employers who failed to provide adequate warnings to workers about the product’s dangers and safe use. Under Delaware law, spouses who regularly handle the clothes are considered “foreseeable plaintiffs,” who could sue for a breach of care.
The ruling also imposed an obligation on manufactures to provide employers with safe laundering instructions and warning about the dangers of downstream use.
“Under this liability regime, we take into fair account the legitimate concerns about exposing asbestos product manufacturers to uncabined liability to myriad plaintiffs in take-home asbestos exposure cases,” Strine wrote on behalf of the court. “But, as important, we make sure that foreseeable plaintiffs who suffer serious injury have a basis for recovery, if they can prove out all the other elements of their claims.”
The ruling came in a case brought by the estate of Dorothy Ramsey, who died of lung cancer in 2015. According to court documents, Ramsey was responsible for washing clothes for her husband, who regularly handled asbestos products as part of his job making pipes and pipe fittings.
Before her death, Ramsey sued manufacturers—Georgia Southern University’s Herty Advanced Development Center and Massachusetts-based Hollingsworth & Vose Co.—in Delaware Superior Court, alleging negligence in causing her illness.
The trial court, however, tossed the case on summary judgment, citing Supreme Court precedent that held an employer owed a duty only to its employees and not their spouses.
On appeal, lawyers for the estate argued that failure to alert the employer to the dangers of washing contaminated clothing off-site amounted to misfeasance, and thus the manufacturers owed Ramsey, as a person who could be foreseeably harmed by the substance.
The defendants, however, countered that it was the employer who shaped the conditions of its workplace, and a change in tort and liability standards would expose manufacturers to an onslaught of litigation from plaintiffs claiming to be exposed to asbestos through encounters with workers at facilities that used the tainted products.
In his opinion, Strine acknowledged that the manufacturers’ arguments “have force,” but said the new duty scheme from the court “ensures that the parade of horribles the defendant-manufacturers envision will never march.”
“But, the answer is not to ignore the equity due to the plaintiff before us, and the plaintiffs like her, who base their claims on a clearly foreseeable consequence of common, and necessary, human conduct: Workers often have family members who launder their work clothes, and if those work clothes are covered in asbestos dust, those family members can suffer serious injury and even death,” he said.
Raeann Warner, an attorney with Jacobs & Crumplar, represented Ramsey’s estate.
Eileen M. Ford, of Marks, O’Neill, O’Brien, Doherty & Kelly, represented Georgia Southern University’s Herty Advanced Development Center. Hollingsworth & Vose Co. was represented by Sarah P. Kelly of Nutter, McClennen & Fish in Boston and Robert S. Goldman and Lisa C. McLaughlin of Phillips, Goldman, McLaughlin & Hall in Wilmington.
The case, on appeal, was captioned Ramsey v. Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center.